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Flu hitting hard across the region.

Naperville Sun:

A ferocious flu season is rapidly picking up steam
By Susan Frick Carlman
January 8, 2013

If it seems coughs and sneezes are providing a constant sound track for your life these days, no matter where you go, don’t dismiss it to your imagination. Just wash your hands. Again.

The seasonal flu continues to pick up steam nationwide, and the Naperville-Fox Valley region hasn’t dodged the trend.

“Certainly this year in general we’re seeing a lot of flu,” said Mary Anderson, manager of infectious disease control at Edward Hospital in Naperville.

As of Monday, 288 cases had been diagnosed at Edward so far this season, Anderson said — mostly of the H3N2, or influenza A, strain. The figure is well in excess of double the 129 cases reported by the hospital Dec. 21 — and the flu is just getting warmed up.

“In a normal season, we would average 200 cases for the entire season,” Anderson said.

The Illinois Department of Public Health doesn’t keep track of the incidence of influenza, because it is not a reportable disease. However, the agency monitors the data reported by doctors’ offices, emergency departments and nursing homes that report acute illness, as well as schools that report absenteeism rates, to determine prevalence levels. The state has been at the highest level, widespread, since Dec. 9, and as of Dec. 29, more than half the states in the U.S. were also seeing high levels of flu activity, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Last year, when the flu packed a much gentler punch, Illinois didn’t reach the top rung on the flu-prevalence meter until Feb. 19. In 2011, it happened Jan. 23.

“This is much earlier than we usually see this level of activity,” Anderson said.

It’s also a concern for health professionals, who are aware that the flu takes thousands of lives, sometimes tens of thousands, in the U.S. every year. According to the state health department, an average of 3,500 Illinois residents die annually as a result of complications from the flu.

“Flu does kill people, depending how bad the strain is,” said Dr. Tom Scaletta, medical director of the emergency department at Edward, citing the 1918-19 flu that killed some 850,000 people in the U.S. “It can take the lives of otherwise healthy people, occasionally.”

The influenza A strain is relatively bad.

“H3N2 influenza viruses are typically associated with higher death rates,” the CDC reports on its website.

IDPH spokeswoman Melaney Arnold said the death toll for the state was six as of Dec. 29, the most recent date for which figures have been confirmed, including three fatalities in the previous week. The state agency updates flu surveillance data on its website every Friday.

Heavy traffic

Officials at Rush-Copley Medical Center in Aurora are seeing a particularly robust onset of the flu season. The hospital had confirmed 317 cases since the beginning of flu season, as of Monday.

“We know we definitely saw a spike by mid-December,” said Patricia Gomez, the hospital’s administrative director of emergency services, who noted that the high volume has remained consistent through the month since then.

Delnor Community Hospital in Geneva is treating significantly more flu cases than usual, too.

“Both our ER and our two express cares have seen a big increase,” said Dr. Mark Daniels, vice president of medical affairs. “The month of December at the express cares was the biggest they’ve had in two years.”

The Kane County Health Department, in its weekly flu survey, reported that almost 9 percent of all visits to emergency rooms at hospitals in the county were made by people experiencing flu symptoms. That survey, for the last week of December, reported 478 people tested positive for the flu that week, nearly 70 percent of them younger than 25.

Department spokesman Tom Schlueter said it’s the largest number of flu victims in the past six years for this time of year.

In the communities served by Edward, Delnor and Rush-Copley, most residents see their family doctor when they’re feeling under the weather. Many emergency rooms elsewhere, however, are being inundated with people complaining of flu symptoms. In Chicago, nearly a dozen hospitals were on bypass — a status that temporarily redirects incoming ambulances to other medical centers — on Monday night, when emergency rooms experienced a flu surge.

“Emergency departments are getting overrun with people with respiratory illness,” Arnold said.

Among those admitted for treatment at Delnor, Daniels said, a considerable number of patients are being kept in isolation because of the highly contagious nature of the illness. Particularly prevalent are people admitted for treatment who have other health conditions rendering them especially susceptible to the flu.

“People have respiratory conditions and heart conditions, things like that, and suddenly they’re having trouble breathing,” he said.

Labored breathing

The H3N2 flu takes a form similar to its cousin, the virulent H1N1 strain that triggered a worldwide pandemic in 2009 and 2010 and killed thousands of people. Those who have it have a fever, cough, shortness of breath, headache and body aches.

“You take your typical cold, and then you add this tremendous aching and a feeling that you really can’t get out of bed,” Scaletta said.

Many of those who have been seen at Rush-Copley have complained specifically of breathing difficulty.

“There is somewhat of a respiratory component that we’re seeing a little more of this year,” Gomez said.

Those patients can be helped, she said, with nebulizer mist breathing treatments. The rest of those suffering through the flu might find relief in pain relievers such as acetaminophen or ibuprofen, and plenty of fluids and rest.

As usual, prevention is the best route of all. Public health officials continue to advise comprehensive and frequent hand washing and covered coughs and sneezes as the best ways to prevent spread of the illness — that, and getting a shot.

The flu vaccine isn’t in the short supply seen in other recent years, and while some people who get a shot get sick anyway, the effectiveness of this year’s formulation — a blend that includes traces of the H1N1 and H3N2 strains, among other ingredients — is about the same as usual, experts said.

“I heard a very truthful statement that came out of our infection prevention committee, and that is that there is an annual 30 percent failure,” Gomez said. “We don’t see any difference this year.”

There is agreement in the medical community, however, that 70 percent is still good odds. Scaletta said this year’s vaccine is more effective than it was in 2009, when “it was not a good match” for the H1N1 strain.

Flu shots — widely available so far at physicians’ offices and community health centers, as well as local drug store chain locations — are reportedly drawing more interest now than they were a few weeks ago.

“Physicians were saying not a lot of people were coming in,” Daniels said. “What I’m hearing anecdotally is that, perhaps because of what they’re seeing in the press, a lot of people are coming in for shots now. They’re trying to catch up.”

Learn more about the flu and flu shots.


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